is anybody listening?

colin black on fears & hopes for australian sound art


While I very much appreciated the level of artistry in the live performances by Ian Andrews, Peter Newman and Robin Fox, it was somewhat surprising that a “sound program” could be launched with such an arguably audio-visually dominated program. Nowhere during the launch was mention made of the artists who produce purely acousmatic works.

I found myself looking away from the projected images in order to fully appreciate the intricate textures of the soundtracks of the audio-visual works. Even with eyes closed it was almost impossible not to be dominated by the rhythms of the projected light. While these works would have been perfect for the launch of a new media audio-visual venture, it seemed ironic that ANAT was actually launching a sound program. Does this indicate a lack of understanding of the aural arts?

The difference between sound works and audio-visual ones is clear. Gary Ferrington has written about “creating multi-sensory images for the mind” which allow individuals to become directors of the ‘movie’ in the mind, where no two people have the same imaginary experience (Journal of Visual Literacy, 1993). Sound theorist Douglas Kahn has commented that, historically, “too many matters of concern for artists interested in a more central role for sound were left untreated…it was left to the film and media studies to provide examples of how sound and signification could be approached” (Noise, Water, Meat, MIT Press, Massachusetts, 2001).

Problems with the launch aside, ESP is an important addition to the cultural landscape, providing a much needed virtual meeting space for sound artists. By being truly representative of all sound practices and expanding its vision, ESP could make dramatic and lasting changes to the sound art scene.

I’d suggest one way ESP could assist the scene would be to highlight the need for an ongoing sound arts time slot on ABC Radio. To achieve long term outcomes there is a need for continuity. A dedicated time slot for both broadcasting and commissioning new works would make the ABC more directly accountable for its ongoing commitment to the art form. In 1997, 27 new, innovative sound compositions (roughly 600 minutes) were commissioned by the ABC’s Acoustic Arts Unit. Perhaps this could be used as a benchmark for an initial quota.

Currently, the most noticeable absence on the ABC is of commissioned long-form sound works. This is in contrast to many European public broadcasters and signifies to the international arts community that Australians generally don’t value their acoustic artists. It also sends a strong message to the broader Australian community that sound arts, especially extended pieces, are not a legitimate art form within the broadcasting landscape. It denies Australians the opportunity to experience, explore and engage in this artform’s imaginative acoustic spaces.

To date, one response to the limited space for broadcast sound art has been the ABC’s online initiative, Pool, “an experimental collaborative media creation web space…” similar to You Tube but developed by the ABC and partner universities.

While this is a great way to make publicly available works that the ABC has commissioned and now owns but has no way of or interest in broadcasting, two immediate concerns come to mind. Who finances the creation of new works? Is it left to the artist to raise the capital and if so, does this mean that our national broadcaster no longer feels the need to commission the same quantity of new works? It seems to me that Pool could be a great way to publicly archive experimental works that have been commissioned by the ABC, but it does little to address the issue of new commissions.

Secondly, as Pool operates under Creative Commons (CC) licensing and has no budget to pay artists for the use of their works, the whole project could be seen as merely a marketing opportunity for the ABC where artists give works away for free. As APRA’s Online & Mobile Licensing Manager, Frank Rodi, pointed out in a recent speech, CC licensing limits the artist’s potential income and gives away control over the context in which the artist’s work is used.

Leaving Pool aside and returning to the possibility of a dedicated sound art program on ABC radio, I’d suggest that it be overseen by an independent panel of arts producers and journalists. They would select a series of sound artists to curate the program so that there would be little chance of the same people always getting the commissions and airplay. We would then have an artist-run space reaching a national audience. This approach is similar to that of the Austrian public broadcaster, Kunstradio. I asked the head of Kunstradio if she had ever pulled the reins on a curating artist. She was surprised by the question, “We must represent everyone on our public station…some works I like and some I don’t.”

I’d also suggest that the program presents artists from across the artistic community and not be limited to practitioners with academic backgrounds at a time when universities are influential in the arts. The 2000 Ars Electronica Jury has argued that universities may not be the new cutting edge for innovation in digital music “because the leading edges of 21st century digital music are elsewhere” (Kodwo Eshun, “Forward to the World”, Ars Electronica, http://www.aec.at/en/archives/prix_archive/prixJuryStatement.asp?iProjectID=2603). Guidelines would need to be set to allow for transparency and for equality of airtime distributed among the artistic community.

An ABC dedicated time slot for both broadcasting and commissioning new works would be a step forward for Australia, evolving with the country’s rapidly growing pool of sound artists. So come on ESP, help realise the potential for a thriving sonic arts ecology.

RealTime issue #84 April-May 2008 pg. 42

© Colin Black; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2008